By Jessica Cabral
“You can’t be it if you can’t see it.”
That phrase resonates deeply for Dr. Joan Cheng, the new Emergency Department Chief at St. Joseph’s Health Centre of Unity Health Toronto. She has seen it repeated often in interviews by one of her heroes, Kim Ng, the first woman and first East-Asian American hired as a general manager in Major League Baseball.
Now, like Ng, Dr. Cheng is in a pioneering role as the Greater Toronto Area’s (GTA) first East-Asian woman to helm a hospital Emergency Department and only the fourth female Emergency Department Chief in the region.
We sat down with Dr. Cheng to discuss her new role, her hidden figure skating talent and why representation matters.
What excites you most about your new role at Unity Health?
There are many things that are exciting about this role, but I would say the most exciting thing is the idea of possibilities and potential. This department is already run by an incredibly strong group of health-care professionals. They have an amazing reputation for academic, clinical and educational excellence. Knowing that we have such a strong foundation, there is the possibility and the potential for growing this in an intentional and thoughtful way. With all of the arms of Unity Health, with Providence Healthcare and St. Michael’s Hospital, anything is possible when we’re able to collaborate with our incredible staff, physicians and learners.
What are some of your priorities for your first few months in your new role?
My first priority is going to be getting to know the people as well as the community. It’ll be important for me to listen with 110 per cent attention to find out from the community what they want from us as an Emergency Department. I’ll also listen to find out from my team what they want from me as the Chief. I want to ensure that their work is meaningful and that this work will continue to bring them joy. We all have this commonality of what brought us to Emergency Medicine in the first place – we want to provide great patient care and it’s a really fun job. I want to find out what I can do for my team to not only make it a great job, but to help them grow and continue to seek out challenges.
You’re the fourth female Emergency Department Chief in the GTA as well as the first East Asian female Emergency Department Chief in the GTA. How does that make you feel?
It’s really important and it makes me think of Kim Ng, the first female general manager and first Asian American, of any gender, to become a general manager in Major League Baseball. I’ve been reading some of her interviews and she often says: ‘you can’t be it, if you can’t see it’. I work in a male-dominated profession, where, although there are many women emergency physicians, there are very few women holding leadership positions. To me, it’s important for myself and for my women colleagues to have these roles and to show our junior colleagues, not just in medicine but in every field, that we are leaders and that they should start to see themselves as being leaders. In society, it’s easy to almost internalize biases like sexism and racism, and then you don’t see yourself as being somebody who could be a leader.
It’s also vital that you are able to identify and seek out your allies and mentors because they will lift you and give you opportunities. Before you can take on these leadership roles, you have to see yourself as being someone who can do that job. That’s what I see myself as being in this role – someone to show people that you can absolutely do this job. My message to groups that have been oppressed, such as women, women of colour and those in the LGBTQ2SIA+ community, is to see yourself as leaders because you are. I certainly see you, I support you and I believe in you.
What advice would you give to a person starting their career in health care?
I would say that it’s important for you to figure out what you value and what is important to you. Is it the people, the relationships or the potential for growth and challenge that’s valuable to you? When you define for yourself what is important in your life, you can actively seek out those elements in your job. Ultimately, the goal is that you should love your job so much that it’s not really work, it’s play – that’s what Emergency Medicine is to me. But before you can find that job, you have to understand what’s important for you; that way you can work towards feeling valued and supported in your work.
The other advice I would say is to be open to all opportunities. Don’t worry too much about making the right decision, because early on in your career you can’t really make a wrong decision. Even if it’s something you don’t end up enjoying, you’re still going to learn from it.
My last point is that the path forward isn’t always linear, and often it’s not linear at all. Sometimes it will even feel like we’re going backwards, but that’s okay because whatever happens, you’re going to learn from it.
What is your favourite activity or hobby outside of work?
I’m a competitive adult figure skater and my last competition was at the World Winter Masters Games in Innsbruck, Austria in January 2020. With the lockdown, everyone’s competitive season has gone off the rails. At this point, I’m just looking for ice at outdoor rinks near where I live, like at the local Civic Centre. I try to skate wherever I can.
While skating as an adult, I’ve been extremely fortunate to find great skating coaches that have taught me almost everything I know about teaching and education. All of the things they have taught me are techniques that I use in medical education. For example, I run a workshop where I have skating coaches and a music educator teach us about how to give effective feedback. It’s an innovative approach to bring people from completely different disciplines to teach those of us in medicine how to do something that they do so well.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m really excited that Unity Health Toronto has such a strong stance on anti-oppression. The fact that the CEO has made it a priority that anti-oppression is going to underpin all the work at this organization is so impressive. This is something that is very important to me and something that I value, so when I discovered that Unity Health also highly values this, I was happy that our positions aligned well. It’s important that leadership understands how complex and nuanced anti-oppression work is because without that support from the top, pushing this work forward becomes very difficult. I’m excited to have the ability to continue doing anti-oppression and EDI work at Unity Health.
Jessica Cabral is a communications advisor at Unity Health Toronto